Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Villarejo vs. Armitt Book Review

Introductory books, as their label implies, are intended to provide the reader with an insightful overview of a topic, allowing them to further study the subject with a greater sense of familiarity. The two books under review are both attempts at providing a relatively unfamiliar reader with the basics in specified areas of study: film studies and fantasy fiction. Authors Lucie Armitt and Amy Villarejo have produced such introductory guides in Fantasy Fiction: an Introduction and The Basics: Film Studies respectively. This review seeks to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both volumes concerning their introductory nature while also providing a critique of their arguments and overall content. Lastly, conclusions can be drawn as to what should be included in introductory texts and why Armitt and Villarejo should differ, considering their differing subject areas.

Structural and General Value

Some may think it would be superficial to discuss the structure and lay-out of a book in its review. Normally this would be a sound assumption but recognizing the fact that these are in fact meant to be basic introductory texts, structure is actually quite relevant to their overall value.

When looking at the overall layout structure of both works, Villarejo’s Film Studies has provided a much more guided form of presentation than does Armitt. Villarejo provides an introductory chapter that cites brief historical references to film and cinema while also presenting the difference between the two concepts and how she will use them. The use of subtitles is utilized well by her with these concepts with “What is Film?” and “ What is Cinema?”.[1] Both of these sections truly provide an overview for a reader nearly completely removed from film studies. Furthermore, she states the assumptions she has made about the reading audience flat out. Villarejo states in the opening page:

“If you’ve picked up this book to learn something about what it means to study film, you already know in large measure what cinema is: you’ve been watching movies since you first toddled out to the family television, or since you braved your first excursion to multiplex matinee.” [2]

Any assumptions Villarejo has made before producing this book are laid out while also recommending quasi-requirements for reading her book. Even before the above statement is made by Villarejo the back cover is a list of what Film Studies will teach you:

· The movie industry, from Hollywood to Bollywood

· Who does what on a film set

· The history, the technology and the art of cinema

· Theories of stardom, genre and film-making[3]

Armitt’s Fantasy Fiction on the other hand, never states these as Villarejo does in her introduction. It is difficult to find where she is heading from the first chapter. This will be discussed in a more thorough manner later in this review, but Armitt fails to fully define “fantasy fiction” in the eleven page introduction, she merely dances around the topic. Her layout of the chapter confuses the reader and often is not sticking to the goal of the chapter, if its name “What is Fantasy Writing?” is supposed to give the reader an idea of what she is going to ramble about.[4] For instance, an overarching set of specific goals for the book would have been a much appreciated addition in an introductory reader’s eyes. In chapter seven, “Fantasy Criticism”, Armitt begins by discussing Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as him “setting out to classify fairytales on the basis of an identifiable list of core narrative functions, his project being to categorize precisely” what it was to be a fairytale.[5] Armitt should do so for her own project or at least provide a much more thorough introduction that doesn’t involve quoting random passages or arguments from people who are never explained (Maureen Duffy, Lilian R. Furst, etc). Villarejo states a goal in her opening chapter in order to brace the reader for what is to come. Her “overarching goal is to offer the reader an exposure to the infectious enthusiasm, if not mania, that is cinephilia, while simultaneously providing a grounding in the study of cinema that will make future viewing more rewarding.”[6]

To return to more general aspects of both Armitt and Villarejo’s texts, a fairly superficial, but much needed assessment of basic components will be discussed. For introductory texts for introductory readers, it can be assumed that glossaries containing important names, subjects, concepts, and other words would be included at the end of the book. Both authors provide this but there is a slight difference between the two. Villarejo uses the glossary as a way to organize the series of highlighted words in the book that litter the pages. While the terms may seem juvenile or reminiscent of grade school “vocab words”, they assisted the reader extensively in grasping major concepts while reading. Furthermore, chapter organization and titles give the reader an idea of what to expect and easily refer back to when reading. Armitt obviously is trying to follow the criteria set out by the publishing series guidelines about what are in their “An Introduction” books. Armitt takes a more creative approach than does Villarejo, but still sticking to the nine criteria laid out on the back of her book. This could have been benefited by adding specific examples of what would be learned, and not generic requirements to be part of the “Continuum Studies in Literary Genre” series. Villarejo does a fine job of creating chapters that can be identified with ease, as she ends every title with “of film”. Furthermore, she ends every chapter with a summary from which to sum up the chapter with.

Content and Arguments

To be blunt, Fantasy Fiction often offers an argumentative approach to presenting information in the book while Film Studies presents information in a neutral and nearly playful approach (example: “Actors also do, of course, talk, fight, fuck, kill, curse and cross-dress…).[7] Keeping this in mind, the following section will often connect to the above statement.

Armitt while has some strong points in her book, there are major flaws with the way it is presented and the credibility of her arguments. The begin, Armitt fails to cite an extensive about of fantasy fiction in the book. In nearly every chapter, Lord of the Rings or Tolkien represent a large aspect of the arguments she is making. For instance, in the second chapter, Armitt cites LOTR to illustrate Christian metaphors in fantasy fiction and then again uses a quote from Tolkien to show the way in which fantasy can “empower a storyteller” a page later.[8] In the next chapter, Tolkien is utilized in criticizing the dream vision that is used in the story of Alice in Wonderland. Armitt quotes him as stating that the dream vision is using “the machinery of Dream” to produce “a good picture in the disfiguring frame”. Armitt also uses LOTR to discuss the dream vision further, this time with the characters of Frodo and Merry in The Return of the King and in The Fellowship of the Ring. The next four to five pages of the chapter are essentially a discussion of the medieval dream vision in terms of Tolkien and the LOTR trilogy. The “Medieval Dream Vision” section of this chapter is eight pages long and five of them are almost entirely about LOTR (Armitt references a slew of characters and events while also referencing all three books in the trilogy). The opening discussion of the section is quite helpful in learning a brief history of the dream vision in fantasy fiction and connecting it to medieval poetry and storytelling. The story of the 8th century character Drycthelm and the Bible’s Book of Daniel are entirely relevant to the process of understanding the dream vision, but Armitt quickly turns to LOTR as the main subject of her argument. The use of Tolkien is no exception to the rule of Fantasy Fiction. His opinions and writing are used as scaffolding to Armitt’s “introduction” to fantasy.

To continue, Tolkien is used again in the Best and Best Known chapter of the book. In fact, Tolkien is downright overused. It seems appropriate that since LOTR is such a well known work of fantasy fiction, it should be used in this chapter. Not only does Tolkien and LOTR receive their very own section in the chapter, but are featured in almost every section of the sixty page discussion of the “best and best known”. A section entitled “Other Desires: Homoeroticism and the Feminine” can be boiled down to the following:

The First Men in the Moon and The Time Machine have examples of the competing visions of masculine. I, Lucie Armitt will do an extremely blunt, not to mention poor, job of explaining the reasons why and will point to the conclusion of a person named Hume (who I will also not introduce or explain) as the main reason of why women are “absent” in fantasy fiction. After barely a page of this empty argument, I will connect this to Lord of the Rings, because that is what I do best. O ya, Frodo and Sam are sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! They are gay because there are no women in the books, so naturally, Sam has to compensate for the lack of estrogen in Lord of the Rings. I will connect the limp-wristed nancy-boys to the lack of women in the books for the next eight pages and end the chapter with Beowulf, just for good measure, ya know?

Hyperbolic as the summary is, one could say that hyperbole is the way Armitt would have liked it that way.

There are further arguments that Armitt makes in Fantasy Fiction that can be seen as flawed. To narrow them down, one in particular, that personally is disagreed with is the discussion of utopia within fantasy pieces. The first paragraph alone is enough to make any political scientist or historian cringe. Armitt states: “It seems to me that the utopian impulse-the desire to go ‘beyond’-underlies all fantasy writing, even, paradoxically, of the darkest kind.”[9] Firstly, to say that a utopia is to go “beyond” is an extremely opinionated statement. Where is this grounded? Armitt does little to defend this claim. On the very next page she becomes incredibly confusing. She explains that the word ‘utopia’ is derived from the Greek ‘outopia’ meaning ‘non-place’ and was then changed over time to ‘eutopia’ meaning ‘good place’.[10] Armitt does throughout the chapter illustrate utopia as a theme in fantasy fiction, but she clouds it by attempting to define it. She adds not just her fantasy opinion of the term, but continues on to the Greek origins previously mentioned, and then moves to Angelika Bammer’s “A utopia is the fictional representation of an ideal polity. It is political in nature, narrative in form, literary only in part”.[11] To explain Brammer’s definition, Armitt is surprising clear on the literary aspect of the definition. She does well with connecting the idea of utopia to the island theme easily seen in Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels. This is a great connection to make considering Thomas More practically laid the groundwork for the concept of utopia in a political and literary standpoint. But as Armitt continues, she uses The First Men in the Moon and The Time Machine and actually begins to discredit the concept of a utopia in fantasy novels. Furthermore, she is using a definition of utopia that is never identified or supported. As stated, More and Swift have identifiable aspects of utopia that are explained quite well. But these aspects of utopia are not seen in the works of H.G. Wells that Armitt is trying to illustrate. She is only using the argument of Brammer to make any conclusions in her own studies that “conventional utopias thus embody an inherent contradiction…they tend to reinforce established was of thinking even as they set out to challenge them”.[12] Aside from a personal disagreement with this statement, this is moreover what seems to be stretching to meet an argument. There may be sound arguments in support of utopia being “an underlying feature of all major modes of fantasy” but Armitt frankly doesn’t convince the introductory reader.

Not to completely disapprove of Armitt, but Villarejo does not take an argumentative approach to the study of film. This review could attempt at discrediting the information presented in the introduction to the subject, but the writer is simply not informed enough on the study of film to take on this matter. But the largest letdown of Film Studies is the sheer amount of information presented to the reader. Above, the point was made that the use of highlighted terms made the book easier to process. But this could be considered a downfall as well. The second chapter, Language of Film is especially confusing to go through. There is an overwhelming amount of information to take in. This could be considered the most technical of chapters, along with a good portion of chapter four as well. The section on film analysis was extremely beneficial to a layman. To cut down the entire sub-sections into the presentation of setting, how and why actors dress, lighting, and figure behavior. Furthermore, Villarejo introduces editing and cinematography through sound and blue screen techniques. These are all aspects of analyzing film that can and should be presented to a beginner in the study of film. In the third chapter, The History of Film, Villarejo provides an interesting way of viewing the “periodization” that stood out particularly. She explains that by viewing movies by the period they are produced, rather than set decades, is the only way to truly analyze the way in which they were made; using “parameters” of major events instead of year-defined eras.[13] Villarejo provides a book that is difficult to contest without having more knowledge of film. The book almost never tends to make arguments, there is, as mentioned before, a rather informal tone to Villarejo’s writing that provides an ease of reading. The reader is not overwhelmed with excessive opinion or criticism.

Connections, Considerations, and Conclusions

Both Villarejo’s Film Studies and Armitt’s Fantasy Fiction contain sections or passages about the “best of” in their respective fields. Villarejo explains the subject quite in depth by providing reasons why critics and film institutions go to such lengths to identify the best films. Some of these considerations include “profit, ‘must-have’ value for the film-lover’s library”, and “free-flattery (you have good taste)”.[14] The most important aspect of Villarejo’s section on the subject is that she actually provides the source of the best films. She cites organizations such as the American Film Institute (AFI) and the British Film Institute (BFI) to credit the lists of the best films that she describes. Moreover, these examples of the best films she utilizes are films that are known to an introductory reader. This is what Villarejo also does quite, not only does she keep these examples in the sections about the best films, but puts forth these films as examples all throughout the book.

Armitt on the other hand, has an introductory reader nearly convinced that she has never read a fantasy fiction novel aside from Lord of the Rings. Every chapter is littered with what she thinks are paragons of fantasy fiction but leave the reader a muddled concoction of examples that try to be fantasy, not conventional prototypes of the genre. Armitt defends herself concerning this issue. She states: “Genre is a great structural underpinning for the development of ideas, but as a narrative framework it quickly runs its course. Newer areas of fantasy should identify themselves less in terms of genre and more in terms of ideas and motifs.”[15] These two lines almost salvage the lack of fantasy fiction she provides in her introduction to the literary genre. She may not have been intending to confuse the reader, in fact, it would be ridiculous to assume so. But this is probably the single greatest downfall of her book. She is attempting to break the mold when the mold is what is needed for an introductory text. Genre, in the case of Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, truly requires a stable, easily-defined boundary of its limitations as a form of literature. Armitt’s argumentative analysis tends to overwhelm the reader, forcing him/her to pick through the critical debris to find grounds for a general introduction to the topic. Villarejo too, addresses the concept of genre in Film Studies, but as expected, in a much more technical approach to the topic (she introduces the concept as a way to pick out costumes). “Because genre is an effect of repetition, we learn its codes so that we can quickly orient ourselves to the iteration of a given story.”[16] Armitt could have benefited from applying this connotation the “genre” and provided conventional books and works to illustrate fantasy fiction.

The further conclude, Villarejo and Armitt have both produced introductory texts that contain their own strengths and weaknesses. By observing these, one could suggest the aspects that should be considered when creating an introductory text. Firstly, argumentative analysis should be minimal and only used when it is necessary in the basic sense. Additionally, overtly technical lingo should be minimal as well, something Villarejo tends to bore and overwhelm the reader with. Secondly, general components should include basic essentials such as a glossary, introduction chapter, and easily readable chapters. Lastly, the authors should maintain a sense of credibility in there writing. To be blunt, Armitt often seems as though she is incompetent in discussing fantasy fiction. There is little she provides that exemplifies an in depth knowledge of the genre. Villarejo continually provides easily understood information, even though at times there is an abundance of technical information that is over the head of many basic readers. To digress slightly, a simple point should be made. Armitt is discussing a genre, a specific and narrow topic, while Villarejo is introducing an entire subject. This would be like Armitt introducing fiction, and not just fantasy fiction. There would likely be less argumentative analysis if she had more information to cover. In the creation of an introductory text, it may be said that the content and difficulty of the read is to a certain extent, subjective. This is not to say that Villarejo and Armitt’s topics do not have similar introductory considerations, but they are difficult to completely compare in this sense.

[1] Villarejo, ch.1

[2] Pg. 1

[3] Pg. I

[4] Armitt, ch.1

[5] Pg. 193

[6] Villarejo, pg. 12

[7] Villarejo, pg. 35

[8] Armitt, pg.15

[9] Armitt, pg.113

[10] Armitt, pg. 114

[11] Pg. 114

[12] Pg. 126

[13] Villarejo, pg. 60-61

[14] Villarejo, pg. 113

[15] Armitt, pg. 189

[16] Villarejo, pg. 34

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